Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Last Tunnel of the Essex Mountain Sanatorium

In the early 1900's, tuberculosis was becoming a major problem in America. The booming population of Essex County was no exception. So many people were sick, that two local women proposed  establishing a hospital in the more rural section of the county where they lived. A parcel of land on the second Watchung Mountain which held an abandoned boarding school was suggested to become the new county sanatorium.

There was just one problem. Some residents of the area did not want the illness to spread from the hospital and start affecting the townsfolk. The group decided to ignore the concerns of the residents, and began sneaking patients into the shuttered boarding school in the middle of the night. Once they had established their presence, it was legally very difficult to evict them. As the disease became more prevalent, Essex County decided to take over the small clinic and expand it to the massive building complex it was. From 1917 to 1930, the county added 21 buildings, to accommodate for the growing population of ill people.

The land on which the hospital sat proved to be ideal, as the quiet scenic setting and fresh mountain air helped the hospital become "The Colorado Springs of the East". The sanatorium boasted a 50% recovery rate, which was almost unmatched by every other sanatorium in the world. The hospital was so efficient in its eradication of the disease, the county no longer needed such a large facility to deal with it. The county closed the sanatorium in 1977, and moved the last few patients to other area hospitals. They also closed the small division operating out of the Freeman Pavilion at the nearby Overbrook Psychiatric Hospital.

The sanatorium fell into serious disrepair, and in 1993 most of the hospital was bulldozed. A few small buildings remained on the complex for over a decade. One of my earliest memories was riding bikes by the former hospital with my father. I saw the dilapidated nurses cottage, and asked him about it. He said it used to be a hospital, but they didn't use it anymore and they were demolishing it soon. For over a decade, I thought that was the last I was ever going to see of the place. But that all changed when I found the tunnel that was still intact.

I had heard about the tunnel from other explorers, but I could never find the entrance. I spent dozens of hours over the years scouring the reservation, to no avail. One day in 2014, my girlfriend and I decided to go for a hike. I was telling her how I had always heard rumors that the entrance was in our general area, but I could never find it. I decided right then that maybe today would be the day. Sure enough, after thrashing around in the tall overgrowth, I found the small concrete opening in the earth.

I called over my girlfriend, and prepared for my descent into the earth. I slid in, which was challenging for a person my size. I didn't have my camera with me, so I was just taking a peek around. I turned to face the hole, and I was frozen by what I saw. Cave crickets. Thousands of them. I quickly popped back out of the hole, and said I would return with my camera when the cold kicks in. A few months later, we headed back with a friend and fellow historian from Old Jersey News.

We didn't spend to long in the tunnel, as it only runs about 50 feet or so. As I walked around this time, I got hit with the real gravity of what we were exploring. It was more than simple exploring, it was something more akin to archeology. We quietly took our photo's, and once again exited the concrete expanse before it came down on top of us.

The buildings of the Essex Mountain Sanatorium may be gone, but the memories of the complex remain. For more info, please visit Rich Kennedy's site


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  2. I remember my trips here in the mid 80's, exploring the hospital and seeing the tunnels. I especially enjoyed the stage area with all the little rooms in the back. It was always a bit eerie riding up that long driveway from the North Caldwell side.